Everybody knows the mind can play tricks on you. I swear I saw John Sibi-Okumu’s Kaggia twice in 2014. But the Kaggia that was staged last weekend at Kenya National Theatre (KNT) seemed very different and only distantly related to the one directed by Nick Njache, starring the late Harry Ebale with Lydia Gitache, Yriime Mwaura and Bruce Makau.
Much of the script and structure are similar. There are effectively two casts, one a kind of retrospective view of Bildad Kaggia and his wife Wambui, the other a present-day team of researchers preparing to assemble the story of the Mau Mau freedom fighter-turned-politician-turned-posho miller.
But the play’s current director Tim Kin’goo apparently had quite a different interpretation of the Sibi-Okumu script. Or that is how it felt. The differences were both subtle and overt. For instance, there was far more music injected into the Unplugged Footprints production. It came during scene changes and ranged from hip-hop and spoken word poetry to the 1950s version of Doris Day singing Que sera sera (Whatever will be will be).
It also could be seen on the KNT stage where Kin’goo created a split set so that both casts could be on stage simultaneously (with lights shifting our attention back and forth). But one of the biggest differences between the 2014 and 2019 shows was the latter seemed to create many more opportunities for the two casts to interact. What was also clearer (in my mind) this time round was that the two researchers, Stacy (Mwajuma Belle and Justin Miriichi) were seriously committed to creating a screenplay around Kaggia’s life. It felt like there was more solid debate between the two who often had differing views of Kaggia and his wife. But then one perspective would take tangible shape in the form of Kaggia (Martin Kigondu) and Wambui (Lucy Njoroge) dramatising the very ideas that were being visualised in mainly Stacy’s mind.
Previously, I hadn’t quite grasped that Kaggia’s character was a projected interpretation of either one of the researcher’s points of view. This might very well have been there in 2014; but if it was, I must applaud the playwright Sibi-Okumu for injecting this relativist view of history and historical figures into his script.
No doubt, Kaggia was and continues to be a controversial character in Kenyan history. For he was a freedom fighter who was one of the Kapenguria Six alongside Jomo Kenyatta and the rest. But he broke ranks with Kenyatta post-Independence over the corruption he saw creeping into government early on. Just as salient was he view that the values and vision for which the land and Freedom Army had fought were not being embodied in Kenyatta’s government. I don’t recall Kaggia stating in 2014 that he was a socialist as he did in 2019, although it was implied in his concern over the inequitable land distribution and the way freedom fighters were sidelined after independence. I also felt there was a bit more historical detail in the recent show, one which revealed Kaggia as not only a one-time member of KPU and later of Kanu, but also a man who spent more time in England after World War Two than had previously been clear.
All four cast members were amazing. Most notably, Justin Miriichi had the most challenging part to play since he portrayed multiple characters, from Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and the British magistrate who sentenced him at Kapenguria to a torturing Kenyan Home Guard, a pleasant and a patronising white man and finally, his caretaker who told his daughter Njoki that her dad was dead.
Njoki was played as both a child and mature woman by Mwajuma, who also took on several other roles. But it was her Stacy that played a greater part in shaping the outline of the screenplay. It was also Stacy who sought to ensure Wambui got recognised as the pillar who helped hold up Kaggia’s life.
In fact, I can’t recall a more poignant moment in Kaggia than when Lucy Njoroge gave a monologue about what it meant to be a woman in Wambui’s day. Her selfless, unquestioning devotion to her man was touching despite the fact that her view of womanhood might well be contested in this day and age.
Ultimately, it was Martin Kigondu whose portrait of Kaggia stole the show. He embodied the spirit of this wise yet enigmatic man to the max. Kigondu’s return to acting is long overdue as his Kaggia clearly confirmed.
For those who may have missed Kaggia this time, Kin’goo promised to bring it back early 2020.